When Arlin Fratzke set out in the spring of 2019 to plant 20 acres of industrial hemp on his western Montana ranch, he didn’t know what was going to happen. Like so many things he’d been through before, this was an experiment.
“I really didn’t have any expectations,” he tells Hemp Grower. “I just wanted to try my hand at it.”
His curiosity was bolstered not only by the early years of Montana’s industrial hemp pilot program (approved in 2016), but by his neighbors’ interest in banding together and forming the Bitterroot Hemp Cooperative. When Fratzke found out his grandfather had grown hemp in Minnesota, well, that just sealed the deal.
In Stevensville, Mont., just south of Missoula, Fratzke has lived and worked on 100 irrigated acres of fine ranch land for the past 20 years. He’s developed a herd of registered cattle (40 pregnant cows and 13 replacement heifers, as of mid-January 2020), part of a closed genetic line that’s quite valuable on the market. Now, though, retired and 62 years old, Fratzke is scouting buyers for his herd, scouting a way out of the ranching life and into the curiosities of industrial hemp.
So, last spring, Fratzke took 20 tilled acres otherwise set aside for his cows’ forage crops (oats, barley, turnips, radishes) and planted 500 lbs. of CX-2 hemp seeds sourced from Canada.
Western Montana is fortunate to have hard soil and a high water table, though this works as a double-edged sword for prospective hemp growers. “The good news is it retains moisture. The bad news is it retains moisture,” Fratzke says. “There’s a real fine line sometimes between how much water is enough water and how much water is too much.”
But western Montana is also victim to skyrocketing real estate prices—the result of eyebrow-raising demand from the well-heeled. It’s hard to find much more than a 10-acre plot in the Bitterroot Valley, a scenic strip of beauty that rests between the Bitterroot Range and Sapphire Mountains.
Fratzke counts himself lucky. But last year’s planting season had other plans. With relentless rains throughout the spring, he didn’t get his seeds into the ground until June 1, when, suddenly, weeks of dry weather settled into the valley. And right as he began to increase the water on his experimental crop to draw out the reticent seedlings, the rains came back—and stayed. Later in the summer, he watched his plants whither in standing water.
“Early on, you really need an even amount of moisture to crack the seed open and get started,” he says. “Too much water kills it. Not enough water, and you can’t even get the seed to sprout.”
By mid-September, Fratzke took a straight-cut combine to his crops and harvested. Between the immature plants and the ones that had succumbed to inundation, “Our yield was poor at best,” he says. “But it was a great education.”
And that’s the prime mover for the 70 members of the Bitterroot Hemp Cooperative in western Montana: Learn from your experiences with this crop. Learn and improve on last season’s yields.
At the same time, Fratzke joined the Montana Hemp Advisory Committee, representing small western Montana farms. Led by the state’s agricultural director, Ben Thomas, the committee will develop plans for the Montana hemp “marketing, research and education.” Fratzke sees is as an opportunity to elevate the work of his neighbors, who themselves are pooling resources to stand out in a rapid and competitive business landscape.
“Here in western Montana, we don't have the large acreage that they do in eastern Montana,” Fratzke says. “It's become the chic place to live. Real estate prices are extremely high. So, there are a lot of people that can grow one to 10 acres here and there. Well, that only way you're going to make that work is if we all get together on the same page and set that up. You can market it as a locally based product too.”
Together with Bitterroot residents Andrew Burgess, Steven Smith, Jeanette Haas, Brigid Jarrett and Daniel Wolf, Fratzke saw the board of the Bitterroot Hemp Cooperative come into being. At the first meeting of curious and prospective hemp farmers in January 2019, everyone agreed that this was something worth exploring.
Burgess recalls: “I started asking so many questions that before the first meeting was over with, everybody pointed to me and said, ‘He needs to run this.’ And I went, ‘You're nuts. I know nothing about hemp. I'm just asking the questions you all should be asking.’”
He was swiftly elected president.
“I convinced most of the other growers in the co-op to use this year as an experiment, so that we could learn what we needed to do, which was my main focus to drive the co-op in the first year,” Burgess says. “I’d realized that nobody knew what they were doing, so the trick was for us to learn from each other and do as much as we can in this first year to understand what we were getting involved with.”
A lot of the early conversations revolved around simple distinctions between THC-rich cannabis and industrial hemp. What is this crop, exactly?(Montana has a licensed medical cannabis market, but no adult-use market—yet.) And a lot of those conversations revolved around the pricing benchmarks associated with both of those crops. How much will this biomass fetch on the market? How do you even sell it?
“Our yield was poor at best, but it was a great education.”
- Arlin Fratzke
Some farmers chose to pursue a half-acre or a single acre of hemp plants for CBD extraction purposes. Fratzke was concerned with the labor needed to pull that off. Burgess ultimately went that route, extracting CBD with equipment built by fellow cooperative member Daniel Wolf. “For me, in one year, I've managed to learn how to go from a seed to end product,” Burgess says the day after he bottled by hand his first 90 units of CBD oil.
This year, Burgess is doubling his acreage and hoping to bring in area high school students and FFAs to learn more about the crop and develop mock business projects. “They're looking to see how they can further involve that in Montana because it is a big product,” he says. “The more we involve the younger kids the better. And to me hands on is the best way to do it.”
For Fratzke’s part, he intended to process his hemp seed for oil and perhaps bale the fiber leftover from his harvest—and find a market later. But his yield was such that he simply left the biomass in the field and took the seeds to a processor in eastern Montana.
“I would really like to see us establish some sort of a facility that processes the entire plant,” he says. “And I think that's the only way we're going to get people interested in growing hemp, is if there’s a market for [farmers to] go out there, cut it, bale it, drop it off and process it. I think that's where they're kind of the future is because the whole plant is useful.” He points to Ag Processing Solutions in Great Falls, Mont., as a whole-plant processor equipped to join the state’s increasing number of licensed hemp farmers (197 in 2019) with product manufacturers and the open wholesale market.
Looking ahead, Fratzke hopes to plant upwards of his full 100 acres this year. He’d already installed a pivot on 40 acres of his ranch, and, in off-season, installed another pivot to cover yet another 40 acres. His biggest lesson from 2019? This crop wants even, careful irrigation.
“Once that taproot started down, it really went to town,” he says, thinking back to last year. “But the key was to get the plant started.” Now, he’s equipped with a more detailed plan to get from springtime to autumn harvest and beyond in 2020.
“I understood when I finally planted it year that I may not have any market for it,” Fratzke says. “But if you don't know how it grows—and that you can even grow it— that's why it was pretty much an experiment. And I had no expectations. I just wanted to see if I could make it grow.”